Mar 16, 2018

Prof Harry Drayton - Obituaries

Of Interest
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Imagining a new university
At the age of 32, my father Harold Drayton was asked by Cheddi Jagan to return from Ghana, where he was a lecturer in Kumasi, to British Guiana to lead the making of a national university. He was then barely two years out his PhD (on cancer viruses). The same letter of January 1962 appointed him Cheddi's personal representative in Ghana, and instructed him to seek advice from W. E. B. DuBois . He met with DuBois in Accra in June 1962. Later in December he visited J. D. Bernal at Birkbeck in London to seek counsel. Back in Georgetown he wrote the White Paper on Higher Education which in February 1963 went to Parliament. He recommended the appointment of the distinguished left scientist Lancelot Hogben as Vice Chancellor. The new university opened, in record time, in late 1963, with my father as Deputy Vice-Chancellor. It received a special dividend from the United States in the form of academics who had been driven out of their posts by McCarthyism in the 1950s, mostly for their membership of the CPUSA -- including the economist Horace Davis, the father-in-law of the historian Natalie Zemon Davis.
Unlike at the University of the West Indies, from which he had been expelled for his political activities in 1951, it would not be a tropical Oxbridge or London: there would be no gowns, no high table, no expensive residential college, no rationing of access to education via price. It would be as near free as possible for students, who would be able to continue working while they studied. Drayton wanted a university which would transform the society by breaking the link between social class privilege and access to education. He wanted a university which would be an instrument for both making an independent Guyana which would break with colonial underdevelopment, and for equipping Guyanese to participate in the life of the mind and cosmopolitan society at the highest level.
Towards these ends of citizenship, access to the highest kinds of learning and culture, and economic and social decolonization, came his most creative initiatives. He wanted to solve two connected problems. On the one hand, very few people had access in the society to 6th Form education, the traditional preparation for university. On the other, that privileged minority who had had access to advanced schooling in the colony had been submitted to a kind of self-alienation: they were taught very little about Guyana and the Caribbean, and were schooled in a sense of their intellects as derivative offshoots of a British excellence in which they could only be subaltern participants. His solution was to plan a very strong foundation year with three compulsory courses. First was a course on World Civilization, for which Horace Davis and Morrison Sharp were to be responsible. Second, "Caribbean Studies", explicitly pan-Caribbean, rather than simply anglophone in its scope, for the inaugural version of which Henri Bangou of Guadeloupe, Jean Briere of Haiti, Elsa Goveia of Jamaica, Maurice Halperin of Havana would offer lectures which would be offered to the public and not just registered students. Third was "Social Biology" the course he would lead, offering 90 lectures over the academic year. The name "Social Biology" was suggested by Hogben: it was an act of piracy, capturing the euphemism under which eugenics had been marketed in the early 20th century for a very different idea of bringing science to the people towards the work of social transformation.
"Social Biology" was, first, my father's attempt over forty hours to introduce every student to the best scientific explanations of the origins of the universe, life, man's place in nature, human difference and the mythologies of race, the biological basis of mans unique capacities such as the human foot, the hand with the opposable thumb, the nervous system and brain, binocular steroscopic vision and the capacitiy for speech and language. But he then went on to 30 hours on human cultural evolution, man the tool maker, energy and technology, hand axe cultures, the multiple discoveries of animal husbandry and agriculture, urbanisation and the culture of cities, a comparison of human cultural development in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, nutrition, demography, the social determinants of health, social inequality and its impact on human biology and culture, pollution of the biosphere and the risks of pesticides and ionising radiation. Throughout it was built on the vision that the natural and social sciences, the humanities and arts would be presented as a whole, with science being taught through and along side music, literature, and the visual. The course, for example, began with him playing 'Jupiter' from Holst's *The Planets* as he introduced the theories of the origins of the universe, describing the many mythological and religious explanations before culminating in an explanation of the Big Bang and the solid state theories.
Only a small portion of his vision was fully realized. By the time he returned to Guyana, the British-American-Canadian covert operation to remove Jagan from power was in motion, which would yield its result in his fall from power in 1964. Beyond this, Hogben, who at this stage of his life was living in an alcoholic stupour, proved deeply disloyal, and my father found himself on the hard side of nasty university politics. My father retreated from his administrative role to be Professor of Biology. There was under Burnham an attempt to fire him which was blocked in a meeting of the Board of Governors of the university by Sir Arthur Lewis, the St Lucian economist, and future Nobel Laureate in Economics, who was then Chancellor of the University.
The Social Biology course however he kept full control over, and it ran until he left the university in 1971 -- no one who was still there felt able to teach it. For the rest of his life former students came to tell him how the course had changed their lives. A decade later, when we were in Barbados and he was no longer in a university, my sister and I would receive versions of these lectures in the car on the way to school. In important ways they made me who I am.
But he also lived to see realised his core hope that the university would be an instrument through which poor people might change their lives through access to a local university. I offer just one example. A man called Raghu Persaud, with little education, working first as a gardener at the Agricultural station through demonstrating his extraordinary gifts with plant classification and breeding moved into their technical department, then via the university moved into a scientific role, was sent to Reading for a Master's in Plant Taxonomy (which he passed with distinction, but could not be awarded the degree because he did not have a first degree), ending up with the New York Botanical Garden, but dying tragically young. My father wrote: "What a truly remarkable human being. Had he been born and grown up in better circumstances, and in a more supportive environment, who knows what heights he might have scaled?". In some ways, that was the question which underpinned his whole vision of a university: how to make a society which would allow the fullest development of every human potential irrespective of the circumstances of birth and the accidents of life?

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